Foreign relations

Australia, China, US and the world

Last week ABC’s Saturday Extra ran two sessions covering the same theme – Australia’s defence policy in an era of power rivalry between China and the US.

The first – War and appeasement – was an interview with James Curran, a specialist in US-Australian relations, at the University of Sydney. The central question was whether the present situation of the great powers is similar to the situation in 1938, when Britain and its allies let go unchallenged Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. The common interpretation is that in appeasing Hitler Prime Minister Chamberlain gave him the go-ahead to pursue all-out war in the following years. [1] (13 minutes)

The second – A foreign affair: year in review – picks up on the same theme in an interview with Michael Wesley of the University of Melbourne, Gorana Grgic of the US Studies Centre of the University of Sydney, and former diplomat John McCarthy, former ambassador to Washington and former senior private secretary to Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock. (25 minutes)

This starts with a discussion of the problems of dealing with global collective problems and the related failure of multilateralism, particularly relating to vaccination, climate change and terrorism. It moves on to the lack of confidence in the US following its Afghanistan fiasco and its failed interventions in the Middle East generally.

Then the discussion moves on to the big-power competition and how Australia places itself in the context of the relationship with the US and China. They agree that it is extraordinary that as a small power Australia has gone further than any other small country in criticising China and whipping up a sense that war is an inevitability. Undoubtedly this has been in the service of the Coalition’s domestic political agenda, but it has done tremendous damage to our strategic and general relationship with Asia, where our role has progressed from ”deputy sheriff” to “belligerent cowboy”. AUKUS, a deal in which we yielded to US and UK interests, has been the most recent instalment of this misdirected policy.

Both sessions refer to Defence Minister Peter Dutton’s address to the National Press Club in which he criticised “Labor’s weak security policies” before going on to put forth the idea that China’s stance on Taiwan is the first move in a planned military domination of our region. “Every major city in Australia, including Hobart, is within range of China’s missiles” he warned, before going on to draw an analogy with the perilous situation in the 1930s. [2]

On the US-China relationship, it is informative to listen to Kishore Mahbubani speaking to the Chinese Government’s Center for China and Globalization, where he launches the Chinese version of his book Has China won?. Speaking from the US he describes the forces making for US-China conflict, before asserting that conflict is not inevitable. On the forces escalating conflict he mentions the Thucydides trap (the dismal belief that one great power cannot displace another without a war), the legacy of “yellow peril” racism in America (to their credit the Americans abolished the “Chinese Racial Exclusion Act” well before we got rid of “White Australia”), and a disappointment among policy elites that China has not embraced liberal democracy.

Any differences between the countries, however, are minor compared with the potential benefits of cooperation: both countries are concerned for the prosperity of their citizens, and as the world’s two major powers they have responsibilities for the global common good, most notably at present in relation to pandemics and climate change.

Mahbubani’s presentation (from 20:30 to 40:10) is followed by an address from David Blair of the Center for China and Globalization (1:23:00 to 1:30:50). One of Blair’s main points is that in reaction to the 9/11 attacks in 2001, America has become more defensive and less open, and security and defence voices have been able to have a greater say in shaping policy. Like McCarthy in the ABC interview, he suggests there are structural reasons for governments to become more concerned with military security – a more nuanced view than simply blaming right-wing Republican (or Coalition) politicians for an ingrained belligerence.

Finally Mahbubani concludes (1:36:00 to 1:41) noting a parallel of the present time not with 1938 (Dutton’s appeasement analogy), but with the prelude to the tragedy of the 1914-18 War, a war brought about not because of any deep hostility but because of misunderstandings. If only Americans (and Australians) could read a little history.

Some people may suggest that Mahbubani and Blair are too aware of their audiences’ sensitivities, and are too careful not to criticise China. That would be a reasonable comment, but it would not detract from their arguments. From Australia’s perspective Mahbubani, a highly-regarded diplomat and scholar, living in a small and prosperous Asian country, is well worth listening to.

(With my monolingual constraints I have marked only the contributions of Mahbubani and Blair. I would welcome comments and interpretations by anyone with a command of Mandarin.)

[1] This is the conventional line, but it is disputed on two grounds. First, that Chamberlain’s concession at the München Conference was actually a bluff, behind which Britain vigorously re-armed, and second that whatever Britain and its allies did, Hitler would have gone ahead anyway.

[2] The link is to his delivered address, including Q&A. There is also a pre-delivery transcript for those who are willing to forgo the pleasure of hearing Dutton’s speech.

China’s persecution of Turkic Muslim populations

Morrison justifies our joining with the US in boycotting official participation in the Beijing winter Olympics as a protest against China's human rights abuses against Uyghur minorities. Because the Morrison government has a weak relationship with the truth, because it has no track record on defending human rights in other countries, and because its anti-China rhetoric is been so strident, it’s hard to assess the validity of any such claim.

An independent group in the UK, the Uyghur Tribunal, has been carefully investigating allegations of genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghur, Kazakh and other Turkic Muslim populations in China over the last 15 months. Its finding in what it calls a “summary judgement” is available on the group’s website, leave one in no doubt that China has been systematically subjecting hundreds of thousands of these people to torture in concentration camps.

Although the document is called a summary, it starts with a long description of the tribunal’s processes. Its actual findings are summarised on Para 19, Page 6, that starts “With these cautions in mind …”. That is followed in Para 33, 9, with a summary of witness evidence.

Lowy’s Asia Power Index

The Lowy Institute has a neat infographic The Asian Power Index, updated to 2021, with indicators of economic, military and “soft power” in Asian countries, including countries on Asia’s periphery such as the US, Russia and Australia.

Contrary to some hawkish propaganda, the only countries to have increased their military capability in 2021 were India, Pakistan and Laos. China’s military capability is unchanged. Unsurprisingly, Australia’s diplomatic influence has waned, while America’s has grown, presumably as a result Biden’s election.

Arms sales on the rise

SIPRI – the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute – reports that Covid-19 has not halted the rise in worldwide arms sales: Business as usual? Arms sales of SIPRI top 100 arms companies continue to grow amid pandemic. The US once again tops the list with sales of $US285 billion, followed by China a long way behind with sales of $67 billion, and the UK with $38 billion.

These figures cover only the world’s 100 largest companies. They would miss out on small-scale outfits making and selling AK47s to warring groups in Africa and the Middle East, for example. But SIPRI points out that Chinese firms “have become some of the most advanced military technology producers in the world”.